Once the excitement of having left his island for the very first time faded, Chopper got a little nervous about his new herd. They were all good people, he knew that and wouldn't have left if they weren't, but they were still strange and unfamiliar. Like Doctorini had been, until he had grown comfortable around her.
There was their leader, Luffy, who smelled like the ocean spray, the meat he constantly consumed (and occasionally hid on himself for later snacks) and a slightly rubbery acidic hint to his human-male scent. Luffy was full of smiles and games, wrestling and tag. He was strong, but never so strong that he hurt them while playing.
Usopp was fun too, full of stories of sea-warrior valour, mighty deeds and darring-do. Chopper wanted to be like Usopp when he got older, not afraid of anyone or anything, able to take care of everything in their path. He smelled like wood, spicy tobacco, and gunpowder from all his time fixing the Going Merry and making his projectiles.
The sweet citrus of mikan and the comforting smell of paper and ink layered over Nami's feminine-human scent. She shared her small collection of books with Chopper, always willing to answer his questions as to where they were going, where they had been, and what the little squiggles on the maps she so carefully drew were. She was the first person other than Doctor and Doctorine who had accepted him, and he loved her for that.
The two of them could sit and read in silence for hours, a comfort after so many years by himself or in the presence of just one other person.
There was Vivi and Carue, who both smelled of sand and each other after having been in each other's company since they were children. Carue told Chopper long stories about where they had come from, where it never snowed, and it was always hot, the sand stretching out as far as the eye could see. Like an ocean, made of scorching dry earth that could burn your skin if you were not careful.
Chopper had to marvel over such tales, the idea strange and exotic to him. The Going Merry was already hotter than Drum Island, he didn't know how well he'd handle something that was much warmer.
The strong sour scent of cigarette tobacco mixed with seafood always heralded Sanji's appearance. He was guiltily thankful for the ability to know when Sanji was approaching. While he liked the cook and all the yummy food he made, Chopper was still a little leery after being called 'Emergency Food Supply'.
Usopp assured him that it was Sanji's way of teasing Chopper, a sign that the cook liked him, but the twinge of doubt remained. Chopper had watched Sanji prepare creatures bigger than Chopper for dinner in a manner of seconds and had a feeling that his best bet was a good headstart if Sanji ever decided Chopper was their next meal.
And then there was Zoro, who smelled like metal and blood, both old and new.
Chopper wasn't so sure what to make of the swordsman. He had appeared after Luffy had beat Wapol and sent the former king flying, wearing the coat of a Wapol solider.
His presence didn't make any sense on the ship. Luffy was the ship's captain, Nami the ship's navigator, Sanji the ship's cook, Usopp was the ship's sniper and repair man, Chopper was the ship's doctor, and Vivi and Carue were the ship's guests. Zoro wasn't the ship's anything.
Other than occasional clashes that were like young bucks preparing for fighting in the fall with Sanji, or when there was a sudden change in the weather require all hands on deck, Zoro was usually by himself, either sleeping or exercising. It wasn't that the rest of the crew was ignoring him, Zoro didn't seem to be an outsider, an outcast like Chopper had been, he just didn't seem to care to interact all that much.
The one time Chopper did accidentally bumped into the napping swordsman, Zoro had opened one eye to glare at him, giving Chopper the feeling of being in the presence of a very large, very hungry predator that would have no problem eating him up in one bite.
Chopper usually left Zoro alone.
At least until about halfway into their trip to Alabasta, when Nami and Vivi stepped out on to the deck, their damp hair drying in the sunlight. "Luffy! Zoro! Your turn!" Nami waved.
"Do I have to?" Luffy whined.
Nami just glared and pointed into the bowels of the ship.
Luffy sulked in return as he hopped off the head of the Going Merry. At least until he saw Chopper, his expression brightening. "Hey! Hey, Chopper! Come join us!"
"Eeeh?" Chopper questioned, glancing back and forth. "What?"
"It's okay, right Zoro?" Luffy asked, glancing at the rising swordsman. Zoro grunted, as he rose to his feet, looking like he didn't care one way or the other. Luffy let out a cheer as he grabbed Chopper and ran off the deck, down to the darker galley. He glanced backwards to see Zoro following them, one hand casually draped over the hilts of his swords.
Chopper felt the hair on his back raise in fear. They were shish-kebab.
No, no they weren't. The rest of the crew wouldn't let that happen. And Luffy was strong. And not interested in eating him, at least not since he found out that Chopper was a Doctor. He'd be fine. Really.
Luffy chortled, happily humming to himself as they dropped into the Men's Quarters, Luffy diving into a bag, grabbing a bottle and some clothes before dashing back up to the deck and darting through the cannon room. They stopped out side the bathroom door, Luffy pausing to slip his feet out of the sandals and leaving them outside the bathroom before stepping in. Chopper had been in the bathroom before, but it'd never previously been this warm in the room. Usually the tile was one of the few cool places on the ship.
Luffy leaned down and pulled the cover off the top of the bathtub, giving a little noise of delight at the steam escaping. "Water's still hot!" He cheered. "Come on!" He reached up and placed his straw hat on the shelf above the tub.
"Ah!" Chopper reached up and pulled off his hat, carefully threading his antlers through the holes cut for them. Bath time! Luffy took the hat and his shirt, setting them up on the shelf, setting his straw hat on top to keep them dry.
"What about-" Chopper's question was cut off by the sudden appearance of something falling over his head. He reached up and pulled off a fluffy white towel, just the right size for him.
"Baka." Zoro informed them. Chopper glanced up to find Luffy also pulling a towel off his head and the swordsman glaring at their captain from the doorway, a shallow wood bucket in his hand. "You forgot your towel again."
"Sorry!" Luffy laughed, waving it off. "Thank you, Zoro!"
Zoro snorted and turned his back, setting down the bucket so he could lean against the door frame to undo the heavy black boots on his feet. Chopper stared. Zoro was bathing with them?!
A blast of water caught him off guard. "Come on!" Luffy grinned, his pants already gone as he shamelessly went through the bucket and pulled out a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo. Chopper hastened to follow Luffy's precedence, tossing his shorts up on the shelf and wrapping the small towel around his waist for modesty.
"Can I wash your back?" Chopper asked as Zoro stepped inside, closing the door behind them. He hadn't had anyone to share a bath with since Doctor died.
"Sure!" Luffy agreed brightly, holding the shower head directly above himself and briefly spraying himself. He laughed, shaking his head, sending droplets of water everywhere. "And I'll wash Zoro's back!"
"Aa." Zoro blandly agreed, sliding a low stool towards them, then slid a second one away from the wall. Chopper stared, noticing the shiny pink freshly healed scars wrapping around Zoro's lower legs. How had Zoro been injured?! The wounds were pretty deep from the look of it.
Before he could investigate further, Zoro sat down on the low stool, facing away from Chopper. Luffy cackled, spraying them all down with water. Chopper yelled and flailed as it hit him, it taking a good soaking to get through his dense fur, something that Luffy was more than happy to supply. He felt lethargic as the water got down into his skin, but not in a paralyzing way.
"Here we go!" Luffy released the shower head and sat down on the floor, attacking Zoro's back with a wash cloth. Chopper shook himself, making his fur stand on end as he grabbed a wash cloth out of the bucket. Luffy passed Chopper the soap and Chopper took it, humming as he washed Luffy's back. Luffy chortled, wiggling slightly as Chopper discovered his sides were ticklish.
"You could wash your own back with your devil fruit ability, couldn't you?" Chopper mused as Luffy stretched an arm out to grab the shampoo bottle from next to the door.
"Yup." Luffy agreed, putting a dollop of shampoo in his hands, then rubbing them together. One hand rubbed the shampoo onto his own head, the other reached out and rubbed the shampoo into Zoro's hair, making the swordsman flinch and bat the hand away. Luffy obligingly used it to scrub his own head. "But it's more fun this way!" Luffy added with a grin.
"Yeah!" Chopper agreed, moving the stool over so he could stand on it and wash Luffy's upper back. He was just a little to short to be able to easily reach, even on his tip-toes. Luffy was strong too, he didn't have to worry about scrubbing too hard either. "Done!"
"Thanks, Chopper!" Luffy grinned. He poured more shampoo in his hands as he turned on the stool, and started started scrubbing it onto the fur on Chopper's head, fingers digging in around the antlers. Chopper flailed, laughing and batting at Luffy's arms. Luffy rubbed harder than Chopper usually did, but it didn't exactly hurt. More like scratching at a really good itch.
Luffy laughed and finally let Chopper go, watching him with a grin as Chopper reeled for a moment before regaining his equilibrium. "Okay?" Luffy asked, idly grabbing the wash cloth and washing himself with it.
"Yeah." Chopper grinned back. He picked up the shampoo and began scrubbing it into his fur. That was one downside of baths, he had a lot of hair all over and it took a while to wash it all. And he was shedding, pulling away mats of hair. Human skin was so much faster to clean.
"Done!" Luffy announced, pulling the shower head over his head and rinsing off. Zoro made a rumbling sound, leaning forward to check that all the bubbles were out of Luffy's hair.
"Ears too?" Zoro inquired.
Luffy made a face, stretching his ears out to ridiculous lengths to show that he was all clean. "You find a live fish in 'em one time..." He grumbled good naturally.
"Yeah, yeah." Zoro waved him off. "Go for it. Don't splash too much."
"Wahoo!" Luffy stood up, eagerly pulling back the cover and setting it to the side, before stepping into the small bathtub. He sank down in it with a small happy sigh. "Ahhhh."
"Don't forget to kick." Zoro reminded, turning around in the stool. "Oi, Chopper. I'll get your back."
"Ah." Chopper froze. "You... You d-don't have to..." He stammered.
"It's fine." Zoro motioned for Chopper to move closer. "Come here."
"Uh... Ah..." Chopper glanced around nervously. Luffy was singing a little ditty to his toes about their wiggling being stupid, completely ignoring them. The door was locked on the other side. He dared a look up at Zoro, who was watching him with the patience of a predator stalking their prey. "...okay." Chopper said quietly, moving the stool over. Luffy wouldn't let Zoro eat him, he just had to remember that.
Zoro waited until Chopper was settled on the stool before leaning forward and picking up the shampoo, squirting a little in his hands before setting the bottle down and placing a hand on Chopper's back, just between the shoulder blades. Chopper froze, a small shiver of fear working his way down his spine before settling down. Only once Chopper had stopped twitching did Zoro start to move, fingers digging in through the layers of fur to get down to the itchy skin.
"You're shedding." Zoro commented, dropping a handful of hair next to the drain. "If you can't reach everywhere, you should ask someone to help you brush it out."
"Oh. Um. Okay." With a jolt, Chopper remembered that he still had the rest of himself to wash and continued doing that, most of his attention on the swordsman behind him. After a while he realised that Zoro was being very careful not to rub the fur the wrong way, like Luffy had.
Luffy hummed and splashed to himself, drawing Chopper's attention towards their captain. "Uh.... How... How are we all going to fit into the tub?" He blurted, finding the first topic he could latch on to. It was a small tub, even Luffy couldn't stretch his legs out while sitting up.
"Zoro takes his after." Luffy smiled, turning to rest his arms on the top of the tub, resting his chin on top of them. "Then Sanji or Usopp."
"Oh." Chopper glanced backwards at Zoro, who was still scrubbing Chopper's back with the same predatory air he seemed to do everything else, like he was sizing up an opponent on if he could take them down or not. "Then..."
"Someone has to keep an eye on the idiot, in case he drowns." Zoro said blandly.
"What? But..." Water was bad for any Devil Fruit User, but still water was the worst, paralyzing them. "Oh!"
Luffy chortled, looking unworried about it. Chopper noticed the heels of his feet rising every so often, keeping the water moving.
"A few days after we got the Going Merry, Nami came into the bathroom to find Luffy nearly drowned in the bathtub." Zoro explained. "It took us a while to get him breathing normally again."
"So now Zoro bathes when I do." Luffy grinned. "It's fun, we wash each other's backs."
Like they had earlier, all lined up.
Chopper turned slightly, so he could see Zoro out of the corner of his eye. "What about the others?" There were more people on the ship, other than Zoro.
"Can't ask Nami or Vivi." Zoro shrugged. "The pervert cook doesn't want to share a small bath with a guy if he doesn't have to, and Usopp and Luffy get into splashing competitions, wasting all the water." Zoro glanced up at Luffy, his expression both resigned and amused. "So I guess it's up to me."
Luffy gave them back a pleased grin that seemed wider than his usual happy smile. Chopper glanced between them, remembering the day before. Usopp and Luffy had been fishing when Luffy had over-balanced, trying to pull the fish in.
Chopper had followed, trying to pull Luffy out, forgetting that he was a Devil Fruit User too. He could only watch, unable to move as both he and Luffy began to sank to the bottom of the ocean. And then suddenly hands were grabbing them, pulling them both to the surface and back towards the Going Merry. It seemed like between one moment and the next, they were on the safe solid deck of their ship, dripping wet and suddenly able to breathe.
It was Zoro on the deck behind them, grumbling as wiped the sea water from his face.
Luffy had laughed the whole thing off, annoyed for losing the fish, even if he'd kept the fishing pole.
"... You don't mind?" Chopper twisted around to study Zoro's face.
Zoro raised one eyebrow, his forehead briefly wrinkling like he was confused that anyone would ask such a thing. He glanced over at Luffy, who made a chortling noise, then back down at Chopper before shrugging. "Not really."
Now that he thought about it, Zoro usually napped somewhere near Luffy, keeping an eye on their captain. Even when Zoro trained, he was always aware of where everyone was. Especially Luffy.
And Zoro was the first person Luffy grabbed when he came flying back to the ship, after rocketing away to examine something, trusting the swordsman would anchor him back to the ship. And Zoro had been the one to pull them out of the water.
Chopper examined that thought in his head, rolling it around. Zoro was a predator, but then so was Luffy. Luffy hid his claws most of the time, unless he got really mad. Like when Wapol had tried to destroy the Doctor's flag.
Luffy only showed his claws when he was defending someone.
Sanji and Nami were fighters too. Vivi too, they were going to Alabasta to help her fight for her kingdom. Her homelands.
Chopper could fight too. With hooves and horns and flesh.
Predators tended to travel in packs, not herds like reindeer. Herds moved together to defend against predators, because the more reindeer were in a herd, the greater the chance someone else got picked off and eaten. Like Chopper was supposed to have been.
The difference between a pack and a herd, was that a pack had a leader. On Drum Island, the leader of the Lapahn pack was always the breeding.... pair....
Chopper looked between Luffy and Zoro a few times before turning his gaze to the floor. Doctorine had thumped into him that you did not mention human's breeding statuses.
Luffy and Zoro made low inquisitive noises, then Zoro continued washing Chopper's back, pulling away more handfuls of loose hair.
But in Lapahn pairs, it was the female that was the more dangerous of the pair, especially when it came to the protection of the cubs. If Luffy was the leader who went out and found prey for the pack to hunt, that meant that Zoro was the one who watched over and taught the cubs.
And if they were a pack, that meant that the cubs were the rest of the crew, which included Chopper too.
Chopper turned and stared up at Zoro, who was staring at him with his usual bland expression. "My nose is blue." Chopper blurted. "And I'm a human. And a reindeer. People call me a monster. Is that okay?"
One of Zoro's eyebrows crept upwards again. "Sure." He said with a shrug, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"Really?" Chopper pressed. "Really, really?"
"Yeah." Zoro tilted his head to the side, giving Chopper a curious look.
Happiness bubbled up in Chopper and he clapped his hooves over his mouth, barely able to contain his joy. He didn't just have a herd to run with, he had a pack, with people who would protect him. And he could protect in return! He could be strong too!
Luffy laughed, splashing in the tub. "Zoro's got green hair." He pointed out with a bright grin. "And people call him a devil."
"Oi." Zoro glared at Luffy, who ignored it. It was the same scary face Zoro always had, but now Chopper could see past that to the fondness and the calm patience that lay under it too.
The swordsman sighed, shaking his head. "Ready to rinse off?" He asked, dropping another handful of Chopper's hair onto the floor. There was enough hair there to make a guinea pig.
Chopper nodded, still too excited to speak. Zoro made a soft sound, reaching past Chopper to grab the dangling shower head and Chopper got a good look at Zoro's chest for the first time.
"AAAH!!! WHERE'D YOU GET SUCH A BIG CUT?!?! SOMEONE CALL A DOCTOR!!!"
When they disembarked the Going Merry in Alabasta a few days later, Chopper did so by riding safely on Zoro's shoulder's, watching the rest of their Nakama wade out around them.
Everyone was excited and tense, happy to be off the Merry for a little while and stretch their legs. Their pack, their Nakama were ready to begin the hunt, to take out this Crocodile.
Zoro was a predator who smelled like metal and blood, both fresh and old. But he was the ship's predator, their hunter.
And Chopper was comfortable with that.